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Meridian antagonises Opuha irrigators

By Chris Hutching

Friday 24th January 2003

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State-owned Meridian Energy appeared to be playing politics in commissioning a report that raised safety fears about the Opuha dam near Fairlie in South Canterbury, forcing its owners to reduce the water level.

The chairman of the Opuha Dam Partnership, Sir Peter Elworthy, said fortuitous weather meant irrigators probably would not be disadvantaged by the lowering of the water levels by 2m, a compromise from the 4m sought last month by Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management director John Norton.

Civil Defence stepped in after Meridian commissioned a study into the storage capacity of the Opuha scheme. Ironically, Meridian was investigating whether the Opuha dam could be raised 6m to satisfy irrigation demands of a group of farmers in the McKenzie Basin.

They have formed the Aoraki Water Trust with the intention of sourcing water from Lake Tekapo, one of the three natural southern lakes that provides water for Meridian's hydrogeneration schemes in the region.

Meridian was trying to find other options so it could argue against Aoraki Water Trust's resource consent applications and protect its own water supply.

South Canterbury farmers accuse Meridian of taking part in community consultation over water allocation in the region while at the same time commissioning the damaging report on the dam.

Meridian's view of events is that it had made clear its intentions to consider various options and when it was faced with the findings of the safety report it was duty bound to pass them on to to Civil Defence.

The report found that leakage and drainage levels coming from the earth dam were near the design limits.

As a result the dam was lowered to allay fears of a repeat of the disaster in 1997 when it collapsed during construction, sending a devastating 200,000cu m wall of water down the river, drowning stock, destroying aquatic life and leaving Environment Canterbury with a $575,000 clean-up bill.

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